Cinderella brand or genuine Volvo contender? Tim Gibson weighs the merits of Subaru’s rugged AWD estate
By Tim Gibson
Next time you head to a rural Waitrose, look closely at the vehicles lined up in the car park.
|(96 per cent of Subarus sold in the last decade are still on the road)|
In among the inevitable Volvo XC70s and Audi All Roads, you’ll most likely see at least one Subaru Outback. Chances are it’ll be caked in filth, with a pervasive stink of dog, horse or farm about it (and maybe all three). It may well be extremely elderly.
Now, I guarantee that when its owner (who could be wearing red cords and a tatty Barber jacket) clambers aboard, it will start on the button, with nary a stutter. Instead, you’ll hear the distinctive burble of its flat-four boxer engine, before the car roars off majestically.
Then you’ll be left with a sense of crushing disappointment in whatever non-Subaru vehicle you happen to drive.
You see, Subarus have an inalienable presence. They last for donkeys’ years (96 per cent of Subarus sold in the last decade are still on the road) and combine rugged all-wheel drive capability with genuine driver pleasure.
Remember those gold-wheeled Imprezas that used to yang around town in the 1990s? There’s a reason they were so popular among boy racers of every age.
All of which begs a question: why aren’t there more Subarus on the road? If they’re so brilliant, why aren’t the buying public flocking to their local dealership and placing an order?
As with most things, it’s all to do with branding. Subaru has long been regarded as a niche manufacturer, a bit like Saab, or Volvo before it got cool. If you know the company, you’ll most likely stick with it forever. But it’s rare to see a Scooby on the front cover of What Car? They’re just not mainstream enough.
Didn’t stop me from getting an all-new Outback on test, though. This is the first version in a while not to be available with a turbo diesel engine, which is an initial source of regret to me. But Subaru’s heritage has always been in petrols. It only launched diesel derivatives in the 2000s to meet the burgeoning demand for heavy fuel that was prompted by government incentives. And we all know how that worked out.
So a 2.5-litre petrol lump it is – and a lovely one at that. Power output is 175PS, allied to a maximum torque of 235Nm @ 4,000rpm that’s delivered through a smooth Continuously Variable Transmission with step changes to feel like a conventional automatic. It’s not sh*t-off-a-shovel fast, but it’s more than enough to raise a smile along a quiet back road.
If I have one concern about the move away from diesel power, it’s to do with the Outback’s popularity as a tow car. I’ve pulled a heavy caravan with a diesel version of the vehicle’s predecessor, and it was brilliant in every way. But the petrol plant lacks low-down torque, and I wonder if it will be quite so formidable with a tonne and a half of metal strapped to the back.
|The SE Premium spec version comes with heated leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and – steering-responsive headlights.|
That said, the Outback takes a lot of beating when solo. Despite raised suspension, it’s far more car-like than your average SUV or crossover. Not quite as refined as a Volvo V60 XC, but more competent in genuinely challenging off-road conditions. And the Subaru’s relative lack of plushness will undoubtedly inspire confidence in your average country dweller.
Not that the Outback is in any way spartan. The SE Premium spec version comes with heated leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and – my absolute favourite around dark country lanes – steering-responsive headlights.
All models get Subaru’s brilliant X-MODE all-wheel drive system that breeds genuine capability in the rough stuff. I once drove a version of this car through a waterlogged Welsh quarry and was amazed by its ability to keep up with a fleet of highly modified Land Rover Defenders.
The car also gets Subaru’s Volvo-challenging EyeSight technology, which delivers features such as adaptive cruise control and emergency autonomous braking. That makes it an easy companion for long hauls up the motorway, bringing welcome reassurance, especially if you’re tired.
Sure, it’s a bit twitchy in comparison to your average family estate or saloon. But such vehicles won’t have the go-anywhere magnificence that is hard wired into the Outback. And they won’t give you the same sense that you’re driving a genuinely unusual vehicle, helping you stand apart from the crowd.
This distinctive character is both a blessing and a curse. Subaru dealers tell me they struggle to get buyers into their vehicles, because of their quirky image. They also struggle to get converts to upgrade, because Subarus seem to get better as they age.
That probably explains why the franchise network is relatively sparse. If you want to test drive an Outback, you’ll have to travel a bit further than your local town. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, in which case your local dealership is probably right next door. That’s a clue to the company’s strongest markets.
This won’t be a problem once you’ve bought the car. A recent survey by warranty provider MotorEasy identified Subaru as the UK’s most reliable manufacturer. So you should only need to visit the workshop for routine servicing, which is likely to be more affordable than for prestige brands like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
All told, then, the Outback is a highly credible vehicle. If you like its image (personally I love it) you’ll no doubt be smitten. If you think it’s just too agricultural, so be it. God invented Volvo for people just like you.
Tim Gibson has written about cars for 25 years. His work regularly appears in The Daily Telegraph and other national media.
Published: 10 May 2019
© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd
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